Dualisms are the bread and butter of the music world. Think about it: what if I said The Beatles? Well, then some people would reply with the Rolling Stones. Or maybe, for the sake of discussion, the free and open nature of Jazz improvisation might oppose the strict and respectful approach to playing Classical Music. If we start looking at the opposites in the world of guitar-related gear, we are willingly jumping onto a minefield. I say Les Paul, and you say Strat. To put it in different terms: Gibson versus Fender.
The list goes on forever. You say active pickups, and I say passive pickups. I say DiMarzio, and you say Seymour Duncan. But there is one essential dualism that sculpted the two most relevant “families of tone” responsible for the entire sound of the past century: Fender versus Marshall.
Besides the well-known geographical differences between these two historical brands (Fender is American, while Marshall is British), you probably noticed that the tones these guitar amplifiers are usually associated with could not be more apart from each other. One (Fender) is noticeably scooped in the mid-frequencies, while the other (Marshall) has a substantial boost in the same range of the frequency spectrum.
Fender has precise, tight, and sparkly clean tones, while Marshall has raw, aggressive, and punchy overdriven sounds. Night and Day, Sun and Moon, Yin and Yang.
The Main Differences between Fender vs Marshall Amps
The main differences between Fender vs Marshall amps are:
- Fender guitar amps are usually cleaner than Marshalls. Fenders also have a higher headroom, which means that you need to “push” these amps a lot before they start to distort your guitar’s signal naturally, especially when using a single-coil-equipped instrument, like a Strat or a Tele, whereas Marshalls, on the other hand, tend to overdrive much quicker.
- Fenders are usually mid-scooped. Therefore, the inner EQ on these amps accentuates the higher and lower frequencies, while the mid-range is usually tamed or “scooped”, whereas Marshalls have a more balanced EQ curve across the entire frequency spectrum.
- Fender guitar amps are usually equipped with 6V6 or 6L6 tubes, whereas Marshall amplifiers generally use EL34s.
- Fender amps’ traditionally cleaner sound makes them more usable for music genres that tend to rely heavily on clean guitar tones, such as Country and Bluegrass. Still, these amps are also great pedal platforms, so they are heavily used in Blues and Pop music just as much, whereas Marshalls’ naturally distorted crunchy sound makes them the perfect fit for every Rock guitar player. Still, these amps are also used in a variety of musical contexts.
Now that I have highlighted the most significant differences between these two iconic brands of guitar amplifiers, we need some historical background, so you can be as informed as possible if you’re considering making a purchase.
Fender Amplification History
Leo Fender founded the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation in 1946 after ending his business partnership with Clayton Kauffman. In the early 40s, the company’s original name was K & F Manufacturing Corp.
Its purpose was not only to design and build musical instruments but also (and mostly) to repair them. By late 1945 Leo was sure that the company’s future was to focus exclusively on designing and manufacturing its instruments.
Still, his business partner didn’t have the same idea. So, in early 1946, Leo Fender and Clayton Kauffman parted ways, and Leo started to build the company we all know and love today.
In 1946, close to the end of the partnership with Kauffman, Fender started to produce guitar amplifiers. The first amps were called Woodies, and there were three different products in this range whose names remained part of Fender’s legacy: the Princeton (6 Watts, with an eight-inch speaker), the Deluxe (14 Watts, with a ten-inch speaker), and the Professional (25 Watts, with a fifteen-inch speaker).
Back then, guitar amplifiers didn’t have the same function as they do today because the “primitive” need for amplification was utterly different. For example, the first Princeton amps didn’t have any knobs because the original Fender-made steel guitars that were sold with it already had a volume control. This amp model didn’t even have an On/Off switch. It turned On when you plugged it in, and it was Off when unplugged.
Needless to say, that is very different from what we usually think of regarding guitar amplifiers.
In 1948, Leo Fender started to produce his first full Tweed line of guitar amps, the so-called TV Fronts. This amplifier style was easier and cheaper to make and, because of that, more realistically replicable. This line of amplifiers included the same models as the Woodies.
Still, it’s during this period that we were introduced to the first iterations of the Super (basically a dual-speaker tweed version of the Professional), the Champion (a little 4-watt amp for students with a single eight-inch speaker), and the Bassman (26 Watts and a single fifteen-inch speaker, built initially to be the “companion” amp of the Precision Bass). Leo Fender kept producing mainly Tweed amps until 1963.
The evolution of Fender’s Tweeds after the TV Front era went through two main phases: the Wide Panels phase (1952-1955) and the Narrow Panels phase (1955-1963). Some other Fender Tweed amplifiers created and produced during this period are the Twin, the Bandmaster, the Vibrolux, and the Tremolux.
What came next in Fender’s rich and glorious history of amp production is probably its most iconic phase. I’m talking about the Blackface era. This range of guitar amplifiers defined the tone that most players think of when the words “Fender” and “sound” are pronounced one after the other.
At this point, most of the amp models that Fender is now famous for already existed as part of the Tweed line, but, in the majority of cases, their Blackface version is arguably the most relevant and durable nowadays.
This was when Fender started to add Reverb to the amps they were producing. The Princeton went from its early 1946 version with just 6 watts of power and one eight-inch speaker to the famous Princeton Reverb, which is now regarded as one of the most used studio amps with its 10 watts of power and single ten-inch speaker. The Deluxe went up from 14 watts and a ten-inch speaker to about 20 watts and a twelve-inch speaker and became the Deluxe Reverb.
The Super doubled in size and power, transforming into the Super Reverb, an incredibly loud amp with 40 watts of power and four ten-inch speakers. The Twin Reverb amps produced during the Blackface era could produce 85 watts of clean, high-headroom power, all reproduced by a couple of twelve-inch speakers. Other notable amps made during this period are the Bassman, the Tremolux, the Concert, the Pro, the Champ, etc…
Ironically, despite this range of amplifiers being arguably the most well-known and cherished out of the company’s entire history, Leo Fender sold the Fender Musical Instrument Corporation to CBS in 1965. Hence, the iconic creator of these amps wasn’t even involved during most of the Blackface era.
All the models made during the Blackface era transitioned into Fender’s next phase of amp production: the Silverface era. These amplifiers do not have the same reputation as their Blackface counterparts.
Although being reiterations of the same models, just like the Blackface amps were, the unpopular changes in the design and the constant overall decrease in the quality of the components used after CBS purchased the company caused the Silverface amps to not be comparable to the Blackface amps in desirability nowadays.
After the success of their Blackface line, made until 1967, and the production of the Silverface line, which lasted until 1980, Fender started to diversify its amp game in the 80s. This was when they initially introduced digital and transistor guitar amplifiers, like the Fender Champion and Mustang, and the brand new Tone Master series, which uses top-level amp modeling technology to create faithful reproductions of the Deluxe Reverb and the Twin Reverb.
Almost simultaneously, the company began manufacturing reissues of their glorious amps from the 50s and 60s. So, for example, you can now buy a Blackface Deluxe Reverb ’65 Reissue as well as the Silverface ’68 Reissue.
Marshall Amplification History
The history behind the birth of the Marshall Amplification company is quite undeniably tied to Fender’s heritage. Jim Marshall began building and designing his amps out of necessity when people like Pete Townshend (guitar player for “The Who”) started asking for amplifiers that could deliver more volume than a Fender Bassman, the loudest amp available at the time. Originally a drummer and drums teacher, Marshall subsequently opened a shop when he decided to become a drum salesman.
Although not a guitar player, Vox and Selmer amps were available in Marshall’s shop. Still, when he realized that British rock players, at the time (the early 60s), didn’t have easy access to the sought after American-made Fender amps, he saw an opportunity to enlarge his business by building and selling his own amp models, starting from the blueprint of the famous Fender Bassman amp that he was so frequently asked to modify.
In 1962, after having experimented on five different prototypes, the first Marshal JTM 45 was introduced to the public in Jim’s shop. This iconic and historical guitar amplifier wasn’t just a Fender Bassman copy. Some crucial components had to be replaced due to unavailability in the United Kingdom. It’s a well-known fact that the 12AX7 preamp tubes that Fender used in the Tweed Bassman amps were replaced with ECC83 tubes (or valves, I should say).
The power tubes were also changed from 6L6s to 5881s. The original JTM45 amp was also noticeably the first guitar amplifier that had distortion coming directly from the tubes, not the speakers, as it was previously obtained. This happy accident defined the sound of popular music in the years to come. The JTM45 MKII came not much time after the original version was released.
This is the iteration of the amp that we are most familiar with and the one that most of the guitar legends associated with Marshall Amplification used. It didn’t differ too much from the original. It was just the fully designed and completed version.
Another early iconic Marshall amp has to be what’s known as the Bluesbreaker Combo. The story behind this glorious piece of guitar amplification history is just as fascinating as its sound. In late 1965, almost a year after Jim Marshall had already started experimenting with the build of a combo amp to respond to the growing popularity of the Vox AC30, Eric Clapton had to come back to the UK amp-less from his tour in Greece.
Due to an unexpected and unplanned return trip to London, Clapton was forced to leave his JTM45 behind. Not much later, when he was asked to join Jim Mayall’s Bluesbreakers once again, he went to Marshall’s shop right away and asked him to build a 2×12 combo amp that he could use with the band. This 30-watt amp originally got its name (Bluesbreaker) from the band’s name.
In the mid-60s, the PA systems we know and use today weren’t yet available, but the British bands of the time were beginning to play larger venues for ever-growing crowds. So, due to the increased demand for guitar amplifiers to be played at louder volumes, Jim Marshall increased the wattage on his amps, reaching the iconic 100 watts mark.
This was when the legendary Marshall Plexi amps (named like this because of the Plexiglas material used to build the front and back panels) started to become popular.
The guitar amplifier that gained the most notoriety was the Marshall Super Lead (commonly referred to as the Marshall SPL). Since 1967, the Super Lead’s tubes were changed from KT66s to EL34s, now synonymous with the Marshall Sound.
Marshall Amplification went on to improve, modify, and constantly adapt the sound of its amps to the request of the players that used them. In the mid-70s, they released the JMP 2203, which eventually became the famous JCM800, a single-channel two-input amp derivative of the Plexi design with four EL34 tubes in the power section.
The Low input produces a fat, lower-gain sound due to the signal bypassing one gain stage in the preamp, while the High input gives a higher-gain tone that will make any humbucker pickup roar with enough gain to play roaring ear-blasting leads.
In the 80s, just like Fender, Marshall started to look back at his glorious heritage and started producing reissues of its historical guitar amplifiers. The Marshall Silver Jubilee 2555 was released in 1987, and it was a celebration of Marshall’s first twenty-five years in the business. This was the first Marshall amp to include the Pentode/Triode half-power mode, enabling the players to switch the incredibly loud amp’s 100-watt power down to 50 watts.
The Jubilee was very similar to the previous Marshall amps, but it offered a gainer sound over the already established JMP 2203 layout.
My Top Picks for Fender and Marshall Amps to Purchase
So, I assume that you clicked on this article with the desire to be more informed about what amp to buy for yourself. The final decision between which Fender or Marshall amplifier you’re going to choose depends on multiple factors, including your musical taste and the amount of money you want to spend. Obviously, I cannot answer this question specifically for everybody, but I can give you my two cents about the best amps that both of these companies currently produce.
Fender Amp Top Pick: ’65 Deluxe Reverb Reissue ($1,599)
This amp is a workhorse. It delivers twenty-two watts of power through a single twelve-inch Jensen speaker, which is more than enough to stand up to almost every drummer for what concerns volume.
It has two channels: Normal and Vibrato, with two inputs each. It includes a real Spring Reverb and a tube-driven Tremolo circuit that can deliver the most classic modulation effect associated with the Fender sound.
It works great as a pedal platform, and it has been recorded thousands of times, proving the versatility of this “little” beast.
Marshall Amp Top Pick: JCM800 2203 Reissue ($3,499)
The history of Rock music is inside this massively powerful 100-watt guitar amplifier head. It is a reissue of the original amp, which is faithful to the tradition, but it also adds the FX loop that wasn’t available in the initial version. Now, of course, you’re going to be loud enough with this amp, but you might face some noise complaints.
Still, the glorious sound of a Les Paul (or generally a guitar with humbucker pickups) plugged into this amp is a severe history lesson for the lucky guitarists that get the chance to play this amp at an appropriate volume.
Fender Budget Pick: Blues Junior ($749)
This little amp can deliver the traditional Fender sound at a fraction of the cost. It is a 15-watt single-channel guitar amplifier equipped with a single twelve-inch Celestion speaker.
It also has an onboard spring-reverb circuit, but it is not a heavy amp, weighing in at only 31.5 lbs. It might not be loud enough to play in every circumstance, but it’s going to be fine if you’re playing local bar gigs, and it’s perfect for playing at home.
Marshall Budget Pick: Marshall ORI50C Origin ($799)
This is a 50-watt combo amp with a single twelve-inch Celestion speaker. As you can guess from its name, this amplifier aims to recreate the traditional Marshall sound from the early days, so it might not be the best choice if you want to use it for high-gain sounds without any additional overdrive pedal. Still, it will deliver a more-than-decent traditional British Blues-Rock sound without breaking a sweat.
Luckily and, most importantly for your ears’ safety, there is a switchable power output that you can set to High, Middle, or Low. This is great for situations where you cannot be too loud. I know it sucks when they ask you to turn your amp down, but it can be helpful to have the option to do that without altering your tone.
Let me answer some of the questions you might have on your mind after reading this article.
Question: Should I buy a Fender or a Marshall?
Answer: If you can, why not both? The amps produced by these two companies are entirely complementary: Fender amps are incredible when it comes to clean tones, while Marshalls made history with their natural overdriven tone. Eric Johnson famously plays his live gigs with a Fender Twin for his cleans and a 1968 Marshall Plexi for his crunch and lead tones.
You might not be able to do that live, but if you can manage to have both styles of amps at your disposal, you can at least choose which one fits best the specific musical context you’re going to need an amp for.
Question: What’s the best amp if I play Blues?
Answer: It depends on what kind of Blues you like the most. Anyway, I would say that Fenders are where it’s at for an overall great Blues guitar tone. Legends like Stevie Ray Vaughan or more modern players like John Mayer all used a combination of Fender Stratocaster into a high-headroom Fender amp (even if not specifically a Fender, they both used Fender-derivative amps), with an Ibanez Tube Screamer style of overdrive pedal in the front.
In my humble opinion, that’s the go-to Blues setup. Still, if you’re more into the old-school British rock players like Clapton, Jimmy Page, Peter Green etc…you might find that an amplifier similar to the Marshall Bluesbreaker could fit your needs.
Question: Are these the only two brands that I should consider?
Answer: Absolutely not. Both Fender and Marshall make great amplifiers, but you might want to look around and see what else you can purchase. Vox is the first brand that comes to mind, with historical value at least as meaningful as the previously discussed two companies. Then there’s Mesa Boogie if you’re more into the high-gain American sound. These are only a few of the many companies that specialize in manufacturing guitar amps.
Be aware that you can find products sold for a lower price than Fenders and Marshalls, but, on the other hand, you could jump into the boutique amp world and spend much, much more.
So, we talked about Fender and Marshall amps, and I hope I managed to give you a clear picture of what each brand is famous for, the main characteristics of their amplifiers, and whom they’re targeted for.
If I had to choose, my “desert island” amp would probably be a Fender, but that’s only a matter of personal preference and taste, combined with the experience I acquired through my years of playing live.
I know what I want out of my amplifier when I play it, and I found out that I’m more comfortable when I have something like a Deluxe Reverb behind me. I like an amp not to be too loud and uncontrollable, and I also like my overdrive to come from pedals, usually Tube Screamer-ish. But that’s only me!
After all, it doesn’t matter if you’re on “Team Fender” or “Team Marshall”. What’s important is that you find an amp that suits your needs.